Having worked with many spiritual leaders, I’m tempted to see a sense of humor as a universal index of spiritual development.
Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy
It’s a wonderful gift, a sense of humor that lifts people up rather than cuts them down. To hold a situation lightly without making light of it requires a certain talent – and a particular way of looking at the world. Desmond Tutu put it this way:
It’s not about the belittling humor that puts other people down and yourself up. It’s about bringing people onto common ground…the humor that doesn’t demean is an invitation to everyone to join in the laughter. (p. 220)
I’ve looked for and found this kind of humor in those I count among the spiritually mature. Perhaps I should start looking for spiritual maturity among those with a good sense of humor. Religious affiliation may be unknown or non-existent, but prophets and mystics are bound to show up when and where I least expect them. And laugh at how long it took me to find them.
[Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy; New York: Avery, 2016]
[I’ll move on to humor, the third pillar, in a few days. Today calls for perspective and humility. With heavily armed people patrolling the streets, peaceful protesters willing to risk gathering in large groups in this time of Covid-19, and opportunists taking advantage of it all to rob and destroy, it’s time for a wider, Biblical perspective. ]
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” John 11:49-53, NRSV
Taking a wider view, a longer look, can be a very good thing. It helps us put the troubles of today into a larger context, and it can move us from knee-jerk reacting to measured response. But that’s only if we are willing to see our own shortcomings in the process. Otherwise, taking a wider view is really just seeking wider justification for whatever it is we want to do.
Caiaphas is a good example. He spoke the truth: The love Jesus gave to the world, and the death he received in return, had powerful, holy consequences. But Caiaphas wasn’t really looking at that: he was a practical man, doing his best to maintain some freedom of worship during Roman occupation. Killing Jesus would keep the peace, and keep his world in its current state. The point wasn’t spiritual growth or sacrificial love for the world. He was willing to kill to maintain what he had.
I’m not comparing anyone today to Jesus. But in the willingness of this country to deny or try to explain away the toxic and deadly presence of racism in order to keep things as they are, I see the face of Caiaphas. The question isn’t whether the death of someone can bring about a better world – or it shouldn’t be. The question is whether it’s at someone else’s expense, or my own willing sacrifice. The means do not justify the ends.
There are so many words on this in our holy scriptures, and so many people who have done their best to point out this truth. They even have a special name: prophets. May we listen to them with open hearts and minds – and be willing to speak and act accordingly.
Disturbed, The Sound of Silence, Immortalized, 2015, Reprise Records (original version, Simon and Garfunkel)
These aren’t words spoken in jest, they are a cry for help. They were the last words of George Floyd, but weren’t lost when his life was taken. I CAN’T BREATHE speaks to more than loss of oxygen: it is just as true when someone’s intrinsic worth is denied because of the shade of their skin, their gender, sexuality, abilities, or any number of other reasons. I can’t breathe too often is a communal truth, still true a hundred plus years beyond emancipation, sixty some-odd years after Civil Rights legislation. Potential is smothered, talents choked, and the whole world is the lesser for it. This isn’t a problem for a specific group of people, it’s an infection that destroys the humanity of those who are held down and the ones hate-filled enough to do the holding.
There’s nothing in these words that is new, but perhaps there’s something new in the air we all breathe. It cost a man his life, it cost the world his gifts and his love. But just maybe such a loss opened up the space for real change. I hope so. After all, the Spirit is the Breath of God. When we asphyxiate those we consider outsiders, we close our lungs and souls to the Spirit.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21-22, NRSV
Kyrie, Mr Mister; RCA; December 21, 1985; Richard Page, Steve George, John Lang (writers)
I met one of my favorite professors several years after he retired. He’d agreed to come back and teach beginnning Greek and Hebrew grammar for a year. He’d been on the faculty with Bruce Metzger, the famous Biblical studies professor who had helped shape the Revised Standard Version of the Bible as well as the New Revised Standard Version. If asked, he would say that Metzger was the better scholar, and that he had learned a great deal from him. Even in his retirement, Metzger was quite aware of his reputation, and of his achievements. He had better things to do with his time and talent than teach grammar; someone else with lesser abilities could do that.
Metzger had a point. He continued giving lectures and working at the highest level of academia in his retirement. His list of accomplishments continued to grow almost until his death.
I am grateful for the life and work of Bruce Metzger. Every time I open my NRSV Bible, I encounter his work in its translation choices and notes. But I didn’t know him as a person, and I have no idea how his relationship to God in Christ affected his life.
The other professor, I knew. He taught Greek and Hebrew because the words of the prophets and the gospels were written in them. He didn’t think teaching grammar was beneath him: how could offering others the ability to read sacred texts be beneath him? He had humility in spades, and joy to share.
Love God, self, and neighbor in whatever you do, and joy is sure to come.
Humility is the recognition that our gifts are from God, and this lets you sit relatively loosely to those gifts. Humility allows us to celebrate the gifts of others, but it does not mean you have to deny your own gifts or shrink from using them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy, p. 211
The Dalai Lama was reminding us throughout the week not to get caught up in roles, and indeed arrogance is the confusion between our temporary roles and our fundamental identity. The Book of Joy, p. 209
Humility: living with our feet planted on solid ground. Not trying to stand above anyone else, we live humbly.
Humiliation: being made to feel worthless by the thoughts, words, expressions, or actions of another or our own.
Knowing the difference between these two is critical. The first is being down to earth – a wonderful expression and an invaluable trait. The second is feeling like dirt: losing sight of our true identities (God’s beloved).
Aim for the first. Leave the second alone, either its giving (arrogance toward others) or receiving (losing sight of our own fundamental worth).
Not one of us is perfect, but all of us are beloved and precious.
[Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams; The Book of Joy: lasting happiness in a changing world, New York: Avery, 2016]
It’s the chapter title for Desmond Tutu’s, the Dalai Lama’s, and Douglas Abram’s first chapter on the Eight Pillars of Joy [Book of Joy, New York: Avery, 2016, p. 193]. In a nutshell, the main point is that how we experience something is a matter of how we look at it as well as a matter of what we are looking at:
A healthy perspective really is the foundation of joy and happiness, because the way we see the world is the way we experience the world. Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself. Or, as the Buddha says in Dhammapada, “With our mind we create our own world.” (p.194)
Taking a broader perspective, thinking long-term rather than immediate, and including the wants and needs of others in our deliberations can get us out of our small box reality and into something larger and more life-giving. That’s true, but there’s more…
Sometimes a narrower focus brings to light beauty and joy that often goes unnoticed. This is especially true when life isn’t difficult. The value of a single tree can get lost in the forest.
Zooming in or stepping back, a change of perspective can open hearts and minds to the joy that each day holds, and sustain the soul in all circumstances.
I’ve been reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World these past couple of months – it’s the written version of a week-long visit at Dharamsala. Bishop Desmond Tutu, his holiness the Dalai Lama, and writer Douglas Abrams spend days discussing what true joy is, obstacles that prevent us from experiencing lasting joy, and the eight pillars that foster a joyful life. There are some wonderful stories, a few pictures, and a lot of play and laughter – something found on the many video clips of the encounter, and somehow found in the book’s very pages. In a time of uncertainty, this is a wonderful book to discuss with others.
It’s the pillars of joy that I’m reading at the moment. Why not read and write? If you have the time and inclination, pick up The Book of Joy and read along with me. I’d love to hear your thoughts…
[Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams; The Book of Joy: Lasting happiness in a changing world; New York: Avery, 2016]
in the name of the strong Deliverer, our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
One of my favorite quotes abouthope is from Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, who defined it as …believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. This prayer of Brooks’, while full of requests, is full of hope. How I pray may be more important than the words. If I pray with little expectation, that will be granted; with little hope, I probably won’t be disappointed in the results. If I pray, hopeful of its coming into the reality of my life, I won’t be disappointed, either. Let me pray it and watch the evidence change, believing what the strong Deliverer said several times in several ways in the Gospels – ask for it in my name and it will be given.
Offered by Bill Albritton, teacher, writer, speaker, and seeker.
and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls
Caring about and for others is exhausting. If we don’t have a way to replenish it, our well of strength and compassion can run dry. When this happens, we are unable to support our own life’s burden (much less help anyone else). Sadly and often, this truth is ignored until the fatigue has already set in.
The wonderful and terrible truth is that none of us can offer much from our own resources, so a reframing is in order. If we are wise, or just blessed with common sense, we’ll forget about being a well and ask God to make us a cup of strength – and trust that God will fill and refill us again and again when we run dry.
It can come from anywhere, or it can be absent everywhere. It’s not a train that I can see in the distance coming down the track. It seems to show up or not; as far as I can tell, it’s beyond my control. The spirit of joy and gladness isn’t mine to command.
But I think that’s the point: joy and gladness aren’t possessions I can obtain with hard work and good taste. Joy and gladness are spiritual gifts – given, not taken.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this. Most of the truly meaningful things are the same: virtues in the true sense are goods of the spirit, not goods that can be kept in boxes on the shelves of my ego’s home. The best I can do is keep my eyes and heart open so that when they arrive on my doorstep I’ll open the door wide.